Donne with Whitman

So, Dr. Scanlon briefly mentioned a connection between¬†death and sex in This Compost! last class, and that’s what I’ll explore here. Why the mention of John Donne in my post title? Well, he was brought to mind by this Whitman line: “Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person — Yet behold!”¬†This seemed reminiscent of Donne’s famous¬†plea for some sweet lovin’,¬†The Flea:

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Both poems express the rather repulsive idea that people are unknowingly connected through the parasites that plague them, but they cast it in different (albeit sexual)¬†lights. For Donne, the unity represented by the flea is a positive: it is a sign of the good times that are (he hopes) soon to arrive. The connection is between the speaker and the girl he’s pursuing, exclusively; even though it has a sexual undertone, it is a monogamous sexuality.¬†Donne’s lines are¬†also¬†light-hearted: he wisely knows that pick-up lines are good only insofar as they can make the girl laugh. He turns the flea into a¬†holy thing, a carrier of souls and a tragic victim. However, that “marriage bed and marriage temple” does not fulfill its normal 17th century role: it is not a sign of re-birth and re-production. Instead, it’s end is pleasure.

Basically all of those things contrast with what Whitman has to say in his poem. Until the afore-mentioned line, This Compost! has a very dark and serious tone.¬†After reflecting on how many sickening bodies the land has taken into itself, he speaker has sworn that he will no longer give himself to the land as he once did. The land has been promiscuous with the “drunkards and gluttons of so many generations.” The mite, the parasite, marks a disease-born connection between people. There is nothing holy about what has been done to establish that connection; like the land, the mite has prostituted itself out. However,¬†after the mite-mentioning line, the tone changes and focuses on (exactly what Donne’s amorous speaker was hoping to avoid mentioning) reproduction.¬†Once the cycle of things has come around, the ground¬†overcomes its past and is blameless,¬†perhaps like the literal¬†prostitute that Whitman writes to in other poems. Whitman doesn’t seem to cast himself as a redeemer here though: the earth has healed itself. This emphasis on cycles/seasons and the power of the earth¬†are another oft-repeated Whitman themes, with Song of Myself coming to mind immediately.

Why these distinct differences (I mean, besides the obvious, 100+year gap and several thousand miles of geographical difference)? Well, Donne’s poem doesn’t seem to have much significance beyond the woman he’s writing to: it is simply not one of his wider-scope poems.¬†This seems much more within the realm of possible explanations,¬†since he never styled himself as “England’s poet” the way Whitman did in the Union. Of course, it’s always wise to have historical context in mind when one reads a poem, but¬†with Whitman, it is pretty much¬†a requisite when reading his poems. In the immediate¬†wake of the Civil War, the regeneration of the earth after it has imbibed so much “foul liquid” is symbolic of the country putting itself back together after years of in-fighting. This is obviously a much more somber topic than Donne’s peace-time pursuits of good times. So guys, perhaps the next time you find a six-legged pest clinging to your leg or arm, you should see what you can relate it to.

September 26 2009 11:55 pm | Uncategorized

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